PRINT December 1964

The Honest Elusiveness of Jim Dine

ONE HAS NO DIFFICULTY IN LOCATING the area in which the vision of Jim Dine tumbles and spins and disports itself, like some playful dolphin. His haunt is the fluid sea of visual paradoxes and ironies discovered by Johns and Rauschenberg. This means, initially, that Dine has concerned himself with the inclusion of objects into painting, the continued opulence, but devaluation, of material paint, and the effect of words which label representations which he is at pains to undermine. Considering Dine’s origins, one is not surprised to see displacements and disassociations in his art, nor a whole sequence of images which are “real” or metaphorical, and are compared with each other to no apparent purpose except to arrive at a sinister or laughable equilibrium, in which all their functions have been switched. Like Johns in his metaphysical interrogation of the painting as an object having little (but precious) separate existence from those in life, like Rauschenberg in the radiant sensuousness of his responses and the energy of pictorial movement, Dine is yet distinctively a more compressed, theatrical, and sanguine artist. He combines the most sophisticated techniques with the most disconcertingly innocuous ways of seeing through them. Among those who grafted a Dada sensibility onto the passel of Abstract Expressionist gesturing, he, more than Oldenburg, must be considered the would-be primitive. Yet, Dine’s is a complicated and versatile simplicity; however genial, the grinning dolphin is also elusive, slippery.

One of the great adjustments (and hence hardships) any spectator of Dine must face is to view a consistent frivolity which, on occasion, can be quite monumental. Were it a movie or play that Dine produces (he has, of course, created happenings), the entertainment psychology which permeates all his work would be far more accessible. But somehow, the lightness and thinness of jokes and gags, perfectly appropriate in vaudeville, seem out of place on solemn canvas. Dine tells shaggy dog stories in paint. So many of his pieces, in this respect, are giveaways, the immediate exhaustibility of whose comic point is accentuated by a paint which in turn suffers great moral, if not visual indignity. Such is the effect of his picture called—and calling itself—Hair, his cravat canvases, the Rainbow paintings, or his Mower. Generally speaking, most of Dine’s creations, unlike his colleagues’, operate on the basis of some slight visual pun, which is not in the least as risible as was apparently intended.

By comparison, the built-in wit of a Joan Miró, or a Saul Steinberg, whose levity is entirely permissible and durable to most spectators, belongs to a thoroughly different world than Dine’s. Their humor is contained within the picture, as it were, and is parcel of a distinctive style which allows such whimsical incongruities as a blob with whiskers, or people who speak in Spencerian or whose heads are composed of fingerprints. The unexpected juxtaposition of two disparate images, and the subversion of their usual meanings to produce an unlikely composite, is, of course, a classic comic recipe. What distinguishes this activity in Miró or Steinberg is not their irreverence or dreaminess as such (both orthodox Surrealist devices), but their playfulness. With Dine, however, there is no separate style (personality, yes), no containment, with the result that the produced object itself substitutes for, rather than portrays the joke. Dine not only violates the proprieties of comedic art—namely that the means employed shall not be so disproportionate to the effect as to call attention to themselves—he casts into doubt the very identity of his work. The playful somehow becomes faintly monstrous. Eliminating physical detachment, forgetting any notion of imaginary worlds, Dine’s mentality is unalterably concrete and down to earth, which makes his combine paintings all the more equivocal. Even further, instead of representing the ridiculous, he projects it into the viewer’s space, which simply makes it absurd. And the absurd, which charges the beginning rather than the end point of his exploration, is no laughing matter.

This principle of absurdity informs everything that Dine does with paint language, visual setting, characterization of images, and implication of actions or movement. His facture, for example, can armingly impersonate, separately or together in the same picture, infantile daubing, narcissistic Abstract Impressionism, a Sunday painter gaucherie, various forms of window display sketchiness, and, now, decorator’s enamel color samples. Perhaps in no other artist as in Dine is the handling and behavior of paint so mimetic and irrational—because it voices multiple artistic personalities, and yet testifies to the same homogeneous, sensuous joy.

A comparable incongruity works in the way Dine can combine these various borrowed executions. He may, for example, include frames within frames (the palette series), dispense with frames (the “bathrooms,” where the canvas doubles for a wall), construct combines in which real objects and their echoes of one sort or another interact (the tool series), or, finally, set up rows or sequences of images which may illustrate some metamorphic progression (as in the enormous canvas drawing of a plant that turns into a fan), or scramble sensations of different times of day, landscape or climatic conditions (e.g. The Studio Landscape Painting). Most recently, he has taken to enclosing objects within glass boxes—various garments—or installing displays which sometimes visually interfere, but are psychologically linked with the pictures behind them. It seems evident that the basis of organization in Dine, ostensibly part of a distinctive vision, in effect, plays games with order, and that his art is a comment on, rather than an instrument of various kinds of form. More radical still, there is no allegiance to one distinction, nor common premise or context to the physical field in a Dine work. Just as with his differentiated brushy treatment, he effects all kinds of juxtapositions and combinations with images or elements, much as if his whole development was so much food, not for problem solving, but puzzle making.

The most complicated operation on this level, however, remains the striated illusions and metaphors imbedded into each work, and, of course, reciprocal with paint language, and compositional format. Here the critical device is schematization. Dine’s works are frequently quotations within quotations, or allusions mixed with quotations, or parodies joined with allusions, or a riot of all these possibilities together—bound tightly by an overarching schematic approach. One of his pink surfaces may suggest flesh, be indistinguishable from an object-wall, and yet be executed as if by an action painter caricaturing himself. Or, a flow of pigment dashes, alternating with liquid paint drips might issue from a real shower spigot. In both cases, there is an illusionistic context in which the things materialized are purposely conventionalized, thus canceling out deception, but failing also to revert to an abstract or non-associated status. Additionally, Dine constantly compares the same material in different contexts, which may entirely alter its meaning, as in the green paintstrokes wedged ticklishly between the mower handle and canvas, and those spattering the machine’s blades. Grass is alluded to, but only paint is concretely present,—its significance achieved without any mediation of representational form. But conversely, he will degrade a quite painstaking representation to make it illegible, unreal, or abstract. Thus, in Running Self Portrait L. L. Bean an actual rope, held dangling, is played off against its accurate charcoal shadow, which in turn is echoed by a line, unreadable at first, until one understands that it is a modification, however schematized, of fake shadow. Like some existential fruit grocer, Dine establishes gradients for observed, depicted, and original objects, while toying with their simultaneous reality and vicariousness of presence.

Perhaps the most astonishing of his visions along this line are the two versions of Two Palettes (International Congress of Constructivists and Dadaists, 1922). Every conceivable kind of pun in his repertoire is brought to bear in a floating melange of contradictions: multiple palette holes, reference to outlines of an old photograph, a cane that has materialized into a steel rod, interruptions and bleedouts, patches of “action” mayonnaise etc. And the palette forms themselves are grounds separate from the picture plane, opaque in connotation, and yet somehow hypnotically transparent, with implications of limitless space. They constitute a kind of “terrain vague” which nevertheless functions as receptacle, or as Dine has it, garbage can, for his disparate imagery—an imagery, however, which constantly transforms itself back into ways of seeing, and then forward again into imagery. The picture can be viewed as a struggle between agents which are mutually antipathetic scene stealers (the physical clashes between paint and drawing), and, secondarily, as a literal charade of the anarchistic, prankish doings of the subjects, theatrically and historically recorded in the photograph which was Dine’s original point of departure (if he can be said to have any one point of departure).

Under no circumstances are we dealing with a collage mentality, or the equivalent in art of one of those clever pianists who provide medleys of famous musical styles in one piece. In both such instances, there is an immediate correspondence between the thing recognized, and the disparity of its context: the recognition being the conceptual focus of the composition. In Dine, not only are the correspondences delayed or accelerated, they are subordinated to a constant challenge to the pictorial identity of each work. Parodies or quotations have very much their own genre: here, they break asunder the very notion of genre.

This is not to say that there is an absence of “positive” values in the production of this artist. Surmounting every conceptual or psychological disruption, Dine infuses into the pictorial tissue of all but the most recent of his canvases, an animated, bright, ingenuous, one might almost say, optimistic coloration. But in view of its surroundings, it is the one most discordant note. These agreeable yellows, pinks, reds and ochres, coalescing prettily with each other, have nothing to do with the Dadaistic complications of the overall fabric. Precisely to the extent that the color is an alien or gratuitous element, no less than his unashamedly virtuoso handling, Dine denies the prescribed literary or ideological uses of his painting, and asserts his art as visually self-sufficient. Much the same holds for another result of his contrariety—contrary, that is, to orthodox irony: the exuberant, almost Baroque movement and vitality of his form. Dine parts ways quite decisively with Johns, and even Rauschenberg on this score. This reminiscence of the existing tempo and physical flair of the post-war generation (or more precisely its immediate followers) was shared initially by Oldenburg and Rosenquist, though with them in more recognizably Pop art overtones. Dine, however, is distinguished from these peers, not so much by his high degree of sensuality, as by his ability to make it seem extrinsic, a palpable interference to the operations of his art. His delight in brushiness and gesture, far from being merely some cosmetic base, becomes, at times, an adhesive to which his various clowneries are stuck.

THE SUBTLEST EMANATION of his art forms by the low pressure conflict between stereotyped paint touches and graffiti (he is, of course, mimicking spontaneity), and his vulnerability to pleasure even within the frame of a consciousness which rejects it, or at least any facile demonstration of it. It is the closest he comes to straightforwardness, and for an audience which may have brought itself with great difficulty to accept him as a sincerely devious painter, this faithfulness of Dine’s to sensation makes him more subversive than ever.

He is also, one must admit, quite outspoken and above board about the kind of subject which interests him. No iconographical approach can be more utilitarian, more homey. Whether it be clothes or tools, or the materials of his trade (things which he knows and constantly handles), Dine’s imagery always comes forth in the most practical, immediate terms from his environment. He eschews both the meditative still lifes of Johns, and the wide ranging newsreels of Rauschenberg, in order to concentrate on objects which have a strictly intimate, autobiographical substance. Their articulation, moreover, always underlines the operation of the artifact, not merely its simple presence. Thus, in his astonishing Colorful Hammer, one has a whole pyramidal flux of hammerings, in rich stroboscopic array. And his robe (which is a figurative self-portrait), is constantly being refitted and altered. Never detached from hints of their functions, Dine’s motifs are verbs more than they are nouns. Perhaps more important than the artist’s insistence on “making,” are the implications of such an attitude as far as his own creative act is concerned. One of the most immobile of his pieces, for instance, is Flesh Canvas, in which jars and coagulated gobs of paint are fixed to a little platform attached to a pink colored canvas. The blankness of the canvas, and the inertness of the paint are a commentary on potential sterility as panicky and imaginative as Rauschenberg’s Bed, or Johns’s brushes immersed in the Savarin coffee can. Another theme which the three have in common is the color scale—overt reference to spectrum possibilities and choices—which Dine, however, can joke with to the extent that he shows it coming from a spray, or transfigured into a housepainter’s chart. More seriously, though, he has presented us with that curious painting, vertically bisected by a wooden beam, to which an ax is attached: an invitation for hostile spectators to mess and murder the work of art. (One hears that it was badly wounded.) Finally, most significant of all, Dine confronts us with his palette series. I am not hesitant in considering this one of the most extended allegories on the nature of visual paradox and creative vision in the 20th century. Are the palettes windows, frames, or physical grounds, through, within, or upon which, “art” can be seen to take place? Is the contained paint (or drawing) a mere object, or normal metaphor of image or sensation? Are the presented figurations inchoate gestations of the artist’s visual thought, the end products of thought, or merely chance leavings or droppings of an activity that has occurred elsewhere? Paul Signac said that all art was a matter of contrasts; Jim Dine, for his part, insists that it is a question of contexts. With nothing more intricate than drawing a rounded off rectangle containing an oval, he broaches enigmas that startle by their inevitability.

One must also say that they have repelled by their apparent tautology. Oyvind Fahlstrom has written (sympathetically):

Dine separates, stating paint in one place and fact in another, emphasizing how interchangeable these concepts are (sic). Unlike Rauschenberg, who separates but tends to neutralize all statement through a pattern of relationships and thus achieves a state of total weightlessness of his elements, Dine often compresses the weight of his statement into one massive tautology. In the case of his home paintings the statement may even be tripled. The room-paintings will hang in a room in the owner’s house.

If one expects continued profundities, what Dine does seems too simple, too obvious, as if he had taken advantage of only the most accessible mechanisms that came to mind. And in truth, he is open to accusation, his faults are apparent. For one thing, there is an unfinished, overly reductive quality to much of his work, or it gives the impression that a vital element, a color perhaps, or spatial plane, otherwise implied by the context, is missing. For another thing, he paints too much, and is satisfied rather too easily, with the imbalanced result that his canvases don’t always add up to the intended whole, or vice versa. Finally, none of Dine’s dialectics are exclusive with him, nor does a great quantity of their uses necessarily imply artistic virtue, a fact which he himself may occasionally overlook.

But if one has no preconditions to impose upon the visual experience, then Dine’s weaknesses become merely the obverse of his strengths (perhaps even necessary to those strengths), and the remarkable open-systemed creations he has given us provide one more, certainly the most piquant, conversation in the contemporary dialogue on the potentialities of art as it philosophically annexes more and more of the human situation into itself. As for the idea of tautology, Dine’s capacity to layer and store multiple meanings, and above all emotional shades, into variations of the same image—no matter how slender his means seem and are—should not be confused with needless repetition of statement. He escalates the tension between images and words, reality and reproduction, but in a manner that must come to be recognized, finally, as blatant honesty. The only thing he conceals is the density and rarity of his imagination.

Max Kozloff